Patrick Hughes jr. and Hollister Bundy are the president and vice president of Inclusion Solutions, a firm that provide services and solutions to make buildings accessible to people with disabilities. In this interview, they discuss some of the challenges businesses face in meeting ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements and what entrepreneurs can do to make their places of business more accessible.

What are some of the most common accessibility issues facing workers with disabilities?
Patrick Hughes: One of the biggest problems is simply getting in the door. If you can’t get into the business to work, no one’s ever going to think about hiring you. That’s the focus. It’s less about employment and more about getting access to the place of employment.

Another would be attitude. That’s probably the biggest barrier we see. Thirty-five years ago, people with disabilities were institutionalized. They were not a part of our society. Now that that they are, we’re trying to figure out how they fit into society. That’s where the ADA comes into play. We have legislation that guarantees everybody the right to contribute to society. Unfortunately, we’re still not quite there.

What, if any, legal responsibilities do small and midsized employers have to make their workplaces accessible to people with disabilities?
Hughes: Under the ADA, there are two provisions. Title I, which states that anyone with 15 or more employees has to make reasonable accommodations, and those accommodations need to be customized to the employee. For example, if the employee is blind, they have to tailor the computer system or whatever the arrangement is to that person.

Then there is Title III, which is the area that we focus most on in our business. Title III says that all businesses that affect commerce – churches and country clubs are exempt – be accessible to people with disabilities. The small mom and pop businesses are required under Title III to make changes that are “readily achievable.” Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion regarding what readily achievable means. You can call the Department of Justice, and even they aren’t able to tell you specifically what you can or can’t do. The only way to find out is through a lawsuit. In that case, the judge says that I feel that you’ve gone far enough or you need to continue to do more.

Have there been any precedents set in these lawsuits?
Hollister Bundy: One of the great frustrations has been the government’s inability to set standards under Title III. The Department of Justice is charged with setting accessibility standards on their assistance line for business owners, but if you call their office, you’ll get a disclaimer saying that the information they provide is advisory only. This creates a great deal of frustration for businesses.

The other problem is that when businesses are hit with litigation, they often find it’s a lot easier to settle out of court than risk having a disability advocate set the standards for them. As a result, you don’t really have a lot of defined parameters, and we’re trying to set, at the very least, some minimum standards.

How might small and midsized businesses address accessibility issues? 
Hughes: We offer a product called the Big Bell. It’s an oversized, wireless touch pad with the international symbol for accessibility on it. A disabled person can tap it, and it rings somebody inside the building who can then come out and provide assistance entering the building.

Bundy: Another key thing about it is it passes what is called the “fist test.” The Department of Justice has said that any product to be used by people with disabilities in any capacity must be able to be operated by an average person with a closed fist. That’s about the level of dexterity that some of these folks have. Our push button is really the first one to pass the fist test. It looks like an automatic power door, but it’s a fraction of the cost.

What other things might small and midsized businesses do to make the workplace accessible?
Hughes: The key thing is to engage the people you come in contact with. For example, if you have a customer on a regular basis that is blind, take a moment to ask if you’ve done everything you can do for him or her. The chances are you probably haven’t, and they’ve been waiting for you to ask. Guide dogs are the same thing; ask if there is anything that can be done to make their guide dog or them more comfortable. You are going to end up learning a lot more about that person just by asking how you can be of most help. Oftentimes we feel uncomfortable asking people these questions, but it really goes a long way towards making progress in this area.

How should businesses deal with employees or customers who may have special needs on a daily basis?
Hughes: Be as direct as you can. Talk to that person. Assume they know everything; start with that as the No. 1 rule. If somebody has a cognitive disability, don’t make assumptions. The first thing people do when they come in contact with someone who has a disability is they shift the way they interact with them. You should treat them the same as you would anybody else. Treat them as you would like to be treated and don’t get hung up on labels.

Are there any resources, either from the government or foundations, to help small and midsized businesses make their workplaces more accessible?
Hughes: One major resource is the Great Lakes ADA Technical Assistance Center. They are paid for by the Department of Education, and they help businesses understand their obligations under the ADA. All of the ADA Technical Assistance Centers are incredible resources. They have 17,000 different locations.

Are there any business advantages that result from making the workplace more accessible to employees or customers with disabilities?
Hughes: There are approximately 54 to 56 million Americans with disabilities. Hecky’s Ribs in Evanston bought our Big Bell. In the first two months, Hecky had eight customers use it 25 times. It automatically impacted his pocketbook. What’s more, these people will tell their friends and family members that Hecky’s took steps to make its store accessible. There’s a ripple effect that occurs when you change something for the better, and one of the biggest benefits is that you’ll be recognized as a good corporate citizen, someone who’s helped make your community a better place.